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Incoherent Ramblings

About 7 or 8 years ago, as Corwen and I were preparing to leave on our long walk to Spain, I was visiting the Abbey Community in Sutton Courtenay. Before I headed out to the shed, to carry on with my handcart construction project, someone told me not to worry about two strange Americans wearing funny costumes in the garden. They’re harmless and really lovely.

And that was how I met Ethan Hughes and his (now) wife Sarah. They were travelling Europe visiting off-grid communities, with a view to setting up something similar back in the US. You might be forgiven for thinking this is nothing spectacular, but the thing is, they were possibly the two most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

At the time, Ethan hadn’t got into a car for over five years, or used a computer, or a mobile phone…All their travel was conducted on foot, bicycle or for long journeys, train. They didn’t fly from the States, they used yachting agencies to find wind powered passage, or took places in cargo ships, where their proportional use of fossil fuels would be absolutely minimal. They always sought out home grown food over bought, and local food over imported food, they didn’t listen to or own any recorded music, and they dressed in superhero capes sometimes, “just because”, they told me…During their stay, I remember Ethan doing a 3 day long meditation and fast in the dovecot. He said he did it every year, when spring was starting, and we talked about ethics (Ghandi had most of it nailed, he said), ecology and environmentalism (keep it simple, he said) and creativity (tell stories, sing songs, make music and be alive, he said), and to be honest, I have to agree!

I went over to the Abbey several times while they were staying, and one night we threw a party by candlelight with 6 people, a feast from the garden and a live entertainment line up second to none. Ethan told a bonkers creation story, leaping from chair to chair, being a whale or something, Sarah (a trained opera singer) blew us away with her singing, and I sang and played too. It was magical. When they moved on to the next community they were visiting, I met up with them again, and we spent a day learning how to gut fish and hearing how to make a bow from scratch (first, find your dead deer and a yew tree…). And then we went our separate ways – Sarah, back to the States on a ship carrying organic lentils (you couldn’t make it up and one day I hope I will visit them by similar methods), Ethan, to one last community in Scotland, and me? Well, me and Corwen set off on our life-changing pilgrimage on foot to the end of the world.

On the brink of such an amazing journey of my own, to meet them at such a pivotal time in my life did two things: It made me feel braver, and it gave me a life-long reminder that there is more, always more you can do to minimise your impact without minimising your life experience or accomplishment.

I have never forgotten that encounter. In fact, I looked up more about them a while ago, keen to find an address if I could, because I lost the red scrap of paper it was scribbled on hastily when we parted. I managed to find out that they did indeed get married, set up a community and are still off-grid, off-line, and in the world like no-one else I know.

And then I began to see just how amazing they are. Ethan started the Superhero Bike Ride when he discovered that no-one would help him clean up the beach until he dressed in a superhero cape. It mobilises people to dress as Superheroes and go out on bicycles and do ‘service’ (ie help people in any way necessary) in the community. For the sake of it. And the Possibility Alliance, the community they have built, is thriving, and welcoming people who want to know how to be that alive. They call it ‘Radical Simplicity’ and if you look them up you will find blogs (including mine, now), articles and videos about them by others whose lives have been touched. None of these are by Ethan and Sarah, they don’t even have a computer.

They have five simple principles:

  • Simplicity
  • Service
  • Social engagement and Activism
  • Inner-work
  • Silliness, celebration, gratitude.

  But despite not flying, driving, emailing, blogging or even texting, they are sending ripples around the world. And one of them rocked me. And this week I hope I passed that ripple on.

There was something doing the rounds on Facebook this week that got me thinking. Well first it got me annoyed and then it got me thinking. Enough, in fact, to write the blog (or should that be rant) myself this week!

It started with a copy of the London Underground map, only it’s titled a ‘Map of English Folk Music’ and the coloured lines are labelled Songwriting, First Folk Revival, Bands, Squeezeboxes, Fiddle, Guitar etc. It sounds like it could be quite funny and clever, but in fact, I didn’t think so, and nor did some of the people whose names appeared on it.

So I got to thinking, what precisely was it about this image that bothered me so much? And after a while, I realised that it was precisely the same thing that bothered me last week when I heard Howard Goodall being interviewed on Radio 4 about his Story of Music programme on BBC TV.

What riled me with Howard was his presentation of music as a linear progression from something primitive and simple in the past, to something grand and sophisticated. This seems to stem from the belief that classical music is somehow the culmination of hundreds of years of effort, and that other traditional and ethnic musics are somehow less important. I was also frustrated to hear him write off exploring music of other cultures as not relevant enough to include in a six part series, even though the UK has had links with the Indian sub-continent for centuries and trade along the silk road goes back millennia, bringing music, instruments and folklore with it. Surely the early arrival of the bow in Northern Europe deserved a mention!

So back to the Map. Is the attempt to classify and pigeon-hole folk music and folk musicians to this degree is to be barking up the wrong tree? I can see what they were trying to do – make a simple guide to the main aspects of English Folk Music. But does that really achieve anything?

I think I might be getting to the nub of my irritation here. For a start, there are so many folk instruments, it would necessitate the expansion of the underground throughout the UK to accommodate all the possible contenders And yet, not a whiff of a hammered dulcimer, whistle, crowd or harp, all of which have been played in England at least as long as the guitar and the fiddle. And what about ‘found’ objects – spoons, bones, tables, washboards, saws…? There are so many instruments that make up ‘folk music’ that it would be impossible to categorise every last one of them and still have a coherent map. Not to mention how you can represent amateur and professional folk musicians who excel at playing more than one and should therefore appear on several tube lines in the diagram.

And then, the revivals, of which there have been 2 according to the map. Isn’t every rediscovery of traditional song a little revival? There are always articles popping up in the Guardian about the new fashion for folk music – this week I was pleased to see that it was the Child Ballads that made it into the Review section. There have been revivals on and off since people started collecting songs back in the Victorian era. Revivals do not necessarily require electricity and record studios. Even the fashion for collecting wasn’t new then – Shakespeare, Rabbie Burns, Ravenscroft etc were all collectors in their day.

And what of the tireless amateur musicians? Would they not need a whole underground system of their own? It’s all very well listing all the people who have sold records, but they are but one tiny part of the English Folk Music scene. There are many people who week in, week out, sing the songs of their fathers and mothers, and make new ones of their own. And they are the ones who buy the records of the people that made it onto the map. There are few songwriters in the folk world who haven’t steeped themselves in traditional material or other people’s songs, or, like me, have started out as a song writer but then turned to other older wells for inspiration. Where do you put those people?

So my point here? Are not both these representations of music – the TV show and the Map – attempting to distil something undistillable. It seems we are looking at 2 different definitions of Music here, one which requitres clear genres of music for sale that the staff in HMV would know where to put a new CD on the shelves, and one which is about people making music. What I’m saying, is that music doesn’t boil down to a few linear progressions. It’s a web of relationships, cross-fertilisation, experimentation. It can’t be frozen in time, because careers and hobbies take lifetimes, and people change, and so do audiences. People look to field recordings made in the early 20th Century, as well as modern technology. I might listen to some 60’s folk revival recordings to inspire my songwriting and versions of traditional material, but my version of English Folk music can also be informed by Arvo Part, Danish field recordings, Sigur Ros, and Delibes, not to mention our loop station. And you can’t really show that on a map.

And so I was immensely relieved to see someone’s answer to the Map. It was a colourful scribble, with no stations at all, just all the colours messed up and random. Like Music.

posted by Kate

 

 

Apologies for missing last Sunday, we were deep in Tax Return Hell. We’ve climbed out of the Pit of Receipts though so normal service is now resumed!

I was initially thinking about writing a post on the design of Pagan ritual, and how if we are creating a new ritual we need to think about what we are trying to achieve and use an appropriate ‘ritual technology’ to achieve that objective, but I think that can wait until next week. We celebrated a slightly late Burns Night celebration a couple of days ago and it got me thinking about the nature of calendar celebrations, and more specifically the Eightfold Year beloved of Pagans, so I think I’ll put down some thoughts about that from the same kind of headspace. Maybe I’ll call it a Structural Functionalist Critique (I feel fairly safe that no-one will bother to look that up on Wikipedia and see if I’m using the words correctly!).

If you’re not a Pagan I guess these comments, in a broad way, apply to all calendar customs. So stay with me, eh?

Anyhow our Facebook newsfeeds this week have been mostly full of people posting pictures of snowdrops and wishing one another Imbolc blessings or similar. The 8-fold wheel of the year rolls on and I wonder how relevant are the festivals of the Ancient Celts for modern people? Why do we carry on celebrating them, what is their function, personal and collective?

For some people the celebration of the Eightfold Year is doubtless a matter of identity. Its one of those things Pagans do. Maybe if you don’t do it, you’re not a real Pagan? But what do we hope to accomplish from doing so?

Well there is the Community aspect. Well we all celebrate these things so its a nice excuse to meet up and do something together. Nothing wrong with that. On the farm here we’ve recently, at Mo’s instigation, started an informal round of calender celebrations. We wassailed the apple trees, we had two (yes two, count ’em) Christmas Dinners. We celebrated Burns Night. All great fun and nice to get together and build community, not in a heavy way, just nice. I think the Eightfold Year works rather well from this point of view. Six weeks between festivals is about enough time to build up an appetite for the next one.

The Eightfold Year is sometimes thought of as describing a mystery drama that unfolds through the year, telling the ‘life cycle’ of the Horned God and the Goddess (‘life cycle’ makes them sound like bugs, but I can’t think of another way to put it!). In this it is partly successful, although since several overlapping narratives are often used it does get rather confused. Some of this comes down to the Equinoxes, not really part of the original ancient scheme so no-one really knows what to do on them and they tend to get bits of neighbouring festivals attached to them. Maybe it functions better within a small group than it does across the Pagan scene as a whole. Six out of ten for this one Paganism!

Of course there is always Tradition. Its good to do things the way they have always been done, it feels respectful to the Ancestors. Well its good until Ronald Hutton comes along and tells you its all a Victorian Reconstruction conjured from the fevered imagination of Sir James Fraser…

But for me celebrating the turning of the year is about getting closer to nature. It focusses the mind on the changes we see around us, ultimately its humbling because we realise that being human isn’t the only game in town, and that being in the nowdoesn’t make me so important as there is an awful lot of ‘before’, and there’ll be a big lot of ‘afterwards’, if you see what I mean. Now the Eightfold year may be a bit of a trap here. I’d like people to look out of their windows (hell, maybe even go outside) and celebrate what is actually happening in their world. Celebrating that the ewes are in milk may be folkloric, but maybe we should celebrate that the sun is a little stronger, that the birds are starting to build their nests, whatever is going on near you. This might mean maybe our celebrations won’t match up with other people’s elsewhere for timing. Maybe we’ll be celebrating some pretty odd things, but somehow it would be real.

So don’t let those Ancient Celts tell you when to have your party, celebrate something that feels like it needs celebrating (the first Glow-worm of the year is cause for celebration here, as is the first time the outside tap freezes). I’m not advocating dropping the eightfold year, but lets add our personal calender to the sacred mix, because it is sacred too.

Celebrating Robbie Burn’s birthday felt good, so I’m going to do that more as well this year. Ross Nichol‘s Birthday should be marked with a candle or somesuch and maybe Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess deserve some sort of remembrance involving a speech directed at dinner followed by an alcoholic pudding.

So if you survived to the end of this ramble, what are the things that mark the turning of your year, and whose birthdays will you be celebrating?  Go on, use that comment box…

Kate and I kind of belong to two ‘communities’ (or should I say subcultures?), the Pagan Community and the Folk Music Scene. They are oddly similar, maybe even a similar size, though its harder to quantify the number of active folk music fans as there are no questions about your musical taste in the Census (though wouldn’t that be cool!). There is also a lot of crossover in membership.

Both Folk and Paganism have a combination of national events and small local groups. They have their own celebrities, who are World Famous in Folk Music or Paganism, though no-one else has heard of them. Occasionally these people get to go on the TV or Radio, where they are mostly treated as special cases and not usually included in the bracket of the ‘normal’. There are also a lot of caravans involved in Folk Music and Paganism..There is one more wonderful thing they have in common, and I will call it by the slightly poncey title of the Complete Right to Amateur and/or Incompetent Creativity. That’s CRAIC for short. Do you see what I did there?

You see we all live in an a world where music is dominated by two factors which kind of feed off each other, firstly, easy access to recorded music and, secondly, the increased professionalisation of performers. The recorded music industry makes available great music, and I am grateful for that. There is an inevitable side effect though, that is especially obvious with instrumental music but also affects sung traditional music.

Obviously the best musicians are going to get recorded most, but it isn’t the case that a really good fiddle player will get to be on say, 10 CDs, whilst a fairly good one will get on 7. No-one wants the fairly good fiddle player on their record, so a small number of excellent musicians will monopolise all the top level recordings. The music industry only needs one or two players of any given instrument or singers of any given style, as, thanks to the wonder of recording technology, those two musicians can be in everyone’s home and car.

This reduces the diversity in style and makes musicians judge themselves, and one another, in comparison to a very small pool of excellent full time professional performers. It also effects audience expectations. If the only whistle music they have heard is Michael McGoldrick or Brian Finnegan, what are they going to think of my humble tootling? Or yours? Now you may say that the fact it is easier than ever to record a CD and market it yourself may end this situation, and I hope that is right, but I still think I have a point.

The worst side effect of this uniformity is that it might put people off playing and singing. Lots of people start, but a lot stop when they realise they may never be ‘as good’ as their favourite musician. These are unrealistic expectations though fuelled by lack of exposure to, and lack of value given to, live, amateur performance.

However that live amateur performance happens, thank the Gods, in spades at the average Pagan Camp and the old fashioned type of Singaround Folk Club, and long may it continue. Let’s use the Pagan camp and the Folk Club’s power of CRAIC™ to resist this sterile cultural hegemony!

The CRAIC™ Manifesto

As Pagans and Folkies let’s encourage everyone’s participation. Artificial boundaries between ‘audience’ and ‘performers’ are harmful to our culture.

Collective performances by everyone are more valuable than solo performances by skilled individuals. Collective performances build community, togetherness and love. And all that Hippy Shit.

Playing and/or performing is rewarding and marvellous in itself, regardless of any outcome. Acts of pointless beauty are to be encouraged.

Singing songs and playing tunes keeps them alive, but it is variation that keeps them evolving.

Listen to others for inspiration, but not comparison.

The ultimate test for any piece of dance music is its ability to get people’s feet moving, not how many notes it fits into any given second.

The ultimate test for any song is how much it moves the audience and the performer, not how in tune the notes are.

Now is a good day to start learning something new.

Remember the Lady says:

and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in My praise., for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on Earth.


So the first blog, what to write, um, er, um…

No point in introducing us as you probably already know us. If not then click on the About link above. So I guess we could start by saying what we hope to do with this blog, that we don’t already do with our Facebook, Twitter or Youtube thingies.

Corwen: I mainly want somewhere to ramble on about philosophical and political ideas that aren’t appropriate elsewhere. I’m hoping that this will be somewhat more considered and intelligent than the stuff I put on Facebook. I also hope that this blog prompts me to do some regular writing, albeit on a small scale. We’re going to try to post at least once a week, most likely on Sunday, so you’ll know when to expect a blogwise expression of the deluge of strangeness that swirls around in my head.

Kate: I mainly want somewhere to ramble on, and post pictures of my knitting…

So see you soon, maybe tomorrow!

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